I’ve never succumbed to the urge to write a Christmas letter.
Frankly, I’ve never had the urge to write a Christmas letter.
For one thing, it was a lot of work. And it seemed a bit impersonal.
For years, I preferred sending cards with handwritten notes, even if they were short. Now that we have kids, our friends are lucky if they get a preprinted holiday photo card with their address scribbled on the envelope.
While we have clever friends who make their Christmas letters entertaining, some can be ... off-putting? You know, the ones full of straight-A students, cancer cures, Nobel Prizes and other milestones that make you want to scream, “Stepford children!”
Then there’s Artha Chamberlain. Her annual holiday updates aren’t so much about her family as, for starters, Lady Gaga, Brett Favre’s unfortunate text and her favorite TV show, “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Chamberlain is 93. And with all due respect to 93-year-olds, you’d never know it.
Her mind is sharp, her wit even sharper and her demeanor unfailingly pleasant. The Christmas letters feature her take on the year’s top news stories, pop culture, politics and other oddities.
“Everybody says to me, you’ve got this weird sense of humor. If you look at a rectangle, I see it just tilted. I don’t know why, that’s just how I look at life.”
Chamberlain’s life is full of “seriously?” stories — like the summer she was 11 and spent Sunday afternoons watching foreign films with Frank Lloyd Wright at his Taliesin home in Wisconsin with her older sister, Dorothy, an English teacher and writer.
A retired writing instructor and editor for several University of Illinois engineering departments, Chamberlain is an avid reader, movie buff, “sports nut,” Packers fan, former Navy WAVE, skiier and golfer.
She once gave a student an A for a very short rhetoric assignment with the theme, “Definition.” The student wrote, “Baseball: Joe Dimaggio rounding second base.” (That gem made the 2008 Christmas letter).
She’s been doing her version of Christmas letters for longer than she can remember — at least a half-century.
One dating back to the late 1960s was a tongue-in-cheek ode to the hippie movement, which her son Frank was into at the time. (He now owns a landscaping business.)
To accompany the poem, the family posed for a photo: Frank with his longish hair and guitar, mom Artha in a miniskirt (bought for her by a friend from California) and dad Don Chamberlain, a noted UI plant pathologist, holding a flower and looking rather uncomfortable.
Daughter Beth Welbes says the letters are a creative outlet for her mom, who has a master’s degree in English and German from the UI.
Chamberlain writes on an old Smith-Corona typewriter in her “office” at the Windsor of Savoy, with her desk in place of a dining table and the dishwasher as her filing cabinet.
“I don’t cook,” she explains.
She cuts and pastes and hands off the final draft to Welbes, who is trying to introduce her mom to a computer.
Welbes says the letters always manage to strike a note of humor and hope, even the year Don Chamberlain died. That 1997 letter consisted of excerpts from notes sent in by friends and family, “a really wonderful tribute to my dad in the words of others,” Welbes says.
To be fair, Chamberlain does include family news — even after her children ask her not to.
Like the time daughter Ellen Warmbrunn, at age 59, broke her leg trying to jump over a 41/2-foot wall at the Kennedy Center (2010 Christmas letter). Or the time Warmbrunn got a surprise trick-or-treater “dressed” as a male stripper (2003).
“They’ve all been pretty much not about me or how great the family is,” Chamberlain says. “I never could brag about all the honors that people usually write about, because my kids were normal.”
She tries to vary the letter every year. Lady Gaga made it two years in a row — “the name reminds me to gargle” — including the singer’s infamous raw meat dress and steak purse. In 2008, Chamberlain led off with news of Obama’s election, headlined, “You had me at hello.”
This year’s letter was going to be a tribute to Woody Allen, because she loves the movie “Midnight in Paris.” She planned to quote from a review by critic Roger Ebert.
“Then I thought, why should I write about Woody Allen when he has this messy home life? I should write about Roger Ebert,” she said.
She knows Ebert — or, more accurately, knew his mother because their children attended the former St. Mary’s School in Urbana. Chamberlain remembers the day the principal pointed out little Roger on the playground: “‘See that young man over there? He just won an oratory contest. He can be anything he wants — a doctor, lawyer, architect.’ She never said a film critic.”
Chamberlain is a big fan of the annual Ebertfest, attending every year with a group of family and friends. She’s been after Ebert for years to include one of her favorite movies, “You Can Count On Me.”
“It’d better be soon — I’m 93,” she told him the last time.
So the 2011 letter will be a homage to Ebert and Ebertfest.
As for 2012, it is an election year. There’s still time to get on her mailing list.
What’s the best holiday letter you’ve ever received? The worst? Funniest? Braggiest? Send your entries to email@example.com, and I’ll feature excerpts in an upcoming blog post at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/there-yet. Check out the first entry here.
Artha Chamberlain's 2011 draft Christmas letter. Heather Coit/The News-Gazette
The hippie photo - clockwise from left, Ellen, Don, Artha, Beth and Frank (with the guitar) Chamberlain. Photo courtesy Artha Chamberlain
Artha works on her old Smith-Corona typewriter in her "office" at the Windsor of Savoy. Heather Coit/The News-Gazette